Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s eloquence in English is well-known across the country. Harping on the same, EdTech startup Mastree used a caricature of Tharoor, without his consent, to advertise their offering. “Gift your child Shashi Tharoor’s confidence’, the advertisement read. Tharoor has now asked for a public apology and a legally binding commitment to ‘cease and desist such practices’.
While this practice has been common over the past few months, especially with larger EdTech startups using images and quotes of heads of the big technology companies to promote coding, Tharoor says that misusing other people's names and goodwill without authorisation is unethical.
“Yes, I was shocked when friends and social media followers started inundating me with examples of their advertising using my name and caricature, as if to imply I had endorsed their courses or even participated in devising them. My lawyers had already drafted a legal notice when I announced the company would be hearing from my lawyers,” Tharoor told TNM.
The company, Tharoor says, apologised and claimed to have withdrawn the advertisement. However, he says that this alone isn't enough. “A public apology and a legally binding commitment to cease and desist such practices will be required,” he said.
Mastree is an online platform that offers English communication courses for children of all ages. According to the company’s website, it provides children with training in reading, listening, writing and speaking. However, it was founded in October 2019 as a subscription product for all STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) courses for classes 5-8. In July this year, EdTech platform Unacademy acquired a 51% stake in the company for around $5 million.
Tharoor added that the practice was deplorable. "Startups can legitimately approach people for their support and blessings and may even obtain these. But misusing other people's names and goodwill without authorisation is simply unethical," he said.
This is not the first time that a company has come under fire for promoting their offerings using famous personalities. Earlier this year, BYJU’s-owned WhiteHat Jr was called out on social media on its incessant ads about becoming the next Bill Gates, Sundar Pichai, Elon Musk, etc. The Advertising Standards Council of India too took notice and directed the company to take down the ads which it said were misleading. A report in The Morning Context stated that Elon Musk’s SpaceX too had reached out to the company asking them to refrain from using their company’s name.
Several of the startup’s critics had pointed out that a company as popular as WhiteHat Jr could not only impact the mindsets of children, but also set a wrong precedent for smaller companies in the space that such advertising is okay.
Tharoor, too, agreed that such advertising could mislead children into thinking that using a particular product or taking a particular course will make them just like the person advertised.
“This not only adds pressure on the child to be a potential consumer, but also gives the company an unfair and unearned advantage,” he added.
TNM has reached out to Mastree for a comment, but hasn't received a response yet. The story will be updated if and when the comany responds.